Stephen Collins: Two main parties battle over Siteserv and banking inquiry

For Micheál Martin the Siteserv controversy comes at a good time, as he heads into Fianna Fáil ard fheis

‘The ultimate test of Martin’s leadership will be whether Fianna Fáil can make serious strides on the road back and emerge as the second largest party after the next election.’ Above, Micheál Martin at the party’s  ard fheis last year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘The ultimate test of Martin’s leadership will be whether Fianna Fáil can make serious strides on the road back and emerge as the second largest party after the next election.’ Above, Micheál Martin at the party’s ard fheis last year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

There was some irony in the fact that the Coalition was suddenly blown off course by the Siteserv squall in the same week that the Oireachtas banking inquiry got around to the dealing with the night of the guarantee in 2008.

Both controversies have more to do with jockeying for political position than the facts behind the respective decisions to sell a bankrupt company for the best available price or guarantee the country’s banks at a time of national crisis. While there certainly are fundamental issues underpinning both controversies the political point-scoring has obscured rather than illuminated them.

The banking inquiry is welcome but the timing of the hearings, so long after the event, is clearly designed as a political manoeuvre aimed at damaging Fianna Fáil in the run-in to the next election.

That is why there was some poetic justice about the way Fine Gael found itself under the Kesh over the Siteserv issue on the very day that the banking inquiry got around to dealing with the night of the guarantee.

All the evidence suggests there was nothing corrupt or even untoward about the bank guarantee or the Siteserv sale but they have become sticks with which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are trying to beat each other up.

The main political beneficiaries from all of this are likely to be Sinn Féin and the hard left, who are only too happy to attribute the worst possible motives to both of the traditional parties on every issue.

Least worst option

Peter NybergPatrick Honohan

Such expert opinion has done nothing to diminish the narrative beloved of conspiracy theorists and political opponents of Fianna Fáil that the country’s subsequent problems can all be attributed to the decision taken that night.

Something similar has happened in relation to the Siteserv sale. It has been invested with all sorts of implications that businessman Denis O’Brien received favoured treatment, although there is no evidence of that. Nor is there any evidence that the decision to sell the company to him was anything other than a purely commercial one by IBRC.

This is not to say serious soul-searching is not needed in relation to both of the issues that dominated the week’s headlines. At the heart of the Siteserv controversy are genuine worries that one businessman has become far too powerful. The economic crash has enabled Mr O’Brien to hoover up a swathe of business interests including oil distribution, infrastructural development and healthcare on top of his increasingly dominant position as a media mogul. The concentration of such power in the hands of one individual is not healthy for any democracy.

Similarly in relation to banking the focus on the night of the guarantee is a distraction from the underlying reasons the banking sector and indeed the economy as a whole was brought to such a sorry state that the guarantee was required.

If the right lessons are not learned there is a danger that the whole boom-and-bust cycle will repeat itself as the economy recovers.

On the political front, the past week has been a wake-up call for the Coalition, demonstrating that events with the capacity to change the political mood can erupt at any time.

The Coalition’s success in keeping the political focus on the economy had led to a degree of complacency in Fine Gael that the party would be able to dictate the narrative in the run-up to the election and during the campaign itself.

The fumbling response of senior Government figures to the Siteserv controversy has shown how events can spin out of its control very quickly.

For Micheál Martin the controversy could not have come at a better time just as he was heading into a crucial ardfheis which is likely to be the last before the general election.

As leader of the Opposition Martin has the most difficult job in politics and his difficulties have been compounded by the fact that Fianna Fáil was brought to such a low ebb at the last election.

Leading a beaten and demoralised party was always going to be an enormous challenge. Many commentators predicted Fianna Fáil would not survive as a serious political force and Martin had an enormous job to do to try to restore some confidence to his troops.

Full-frontal attack tactics

Last year’s local elections when Fianna Fáil re-emerged as the biggest party in local government seemed to indicate that Martin’s patient approach to opposition was paying off but a succession of opinion polls since then has indicated the party remains becalmed.

However, the cliche that the election is the only poll that counts is worth repeating. Elections campaigns generate a dynamic of their own and that is when the voters really make up their minds.

The ultimate test of Martin’s leadership will be whether Fianna Fáil can make serious strides on the road back and emerge as the second-largest party after the next election.

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